10:45 19 November 2008
Everywhere you go this month you'll see brightly coloured lights and decorations paid for by traders and councils to light up the darkest time of our year. Cynics might think they're a lure to part us from our cash, but they're just a modern effort to brighten the gloom.
Of course doing the job long before the light bulb was the purer, energy-efficient winter sun - revered by our ancestors and now completely overlooked by most of us. Change that by putting Sunday 21 December in your diary and making a date with the solstice. Although it attracts fewer revellers than the summer solstice, it is far more important in the spiritual calendar as it signifies rebirth as the days begin to lengthen and the sun begins to strengthen.
But you don't have to have a religion, a faith or even a spiritual bone in your body to enjoy the moment the sun pierces the morning mist. You can experience it almost anywhere. You just need to be up by dawn.
That's probably the first noticeable benefit the winter solstice has over the summer one. It's the shortest day of the year, so the sun rises late. No need to get up when you should be asleep or keep yourself awake from the night before. Breaching the horizon line between 7am and 8am means it's far more civilised.
Add the right surroundings to its comforting convenience and it could restore your energy, bring goose bumps to the surface and help you catch your breath in these hectic and stressful times.
For some of those who regularly visit Corfe Castle at winter solstice it is the quiet before the storm:
"There's one couple who come here each year," says Pippa Russell, the National Trust's Visitor Services Manager at Corfe. "They visit family on the south coast for the festive period and together they come and stand quietly on the mound, before getting stuck into the chaos of Christmas. It's the start of their holidays and they admit it's how they prepare themselves for the stresses ahead."
Enjoy it together, yet still be alone
While you could easily confuse the crowds of the summer solstice for those at the Glastonbury music festival, those who pitch up for the winter one are far harder to pigeonhole.
"They're not escaping Stonehenge or Avebury. They're all ages, all backgrounds and no one intrudes on each other's space or noses into their reason for coming. Whether it's for spirituality or to seek solace on a midwinter morning it's a rare, private chance to watch sunrise from the castle ruins," adds Pippa. "And the view from the mound is breathtaking."
The sciency bit
Stargazers will tell you that the winter solstice is the very instant the sun's position in the sky is at its greatest distance from the earth. Daylight hours are at their shortest, while the hours of darkness are at their longest. It can move between 20 and 23 December and, although the specific solstice lasts for just a moment, some people celebrate the full 24-hour period, with others marking the day and night before as well as the night after.
Our ancestors, who weren't looking skyward scientifically, apparently saw the solstice as a hopeful turning point. The growing season had long ended and people were living off stored food and whatever animals they could catch. Just as today, people were affected by the lack of sunlight and many feared it would keep sinking lower and lower in the skyline leaving them in eternal darkness and extreme cold.
The winter solstice was a reason to celebrate as our ancestors could visibly see the sun's strength grow and the hours of daylight lengthen. Even though there were still months of cold weather ahead, they took comfort in knowing that the return of warmer seasons were inevitable. Within a few days of the solstice the changes were obvious enough and celebrations were often timed around 25 December.
"Even though the official solstice moves from
year to year, we always open the castle mound on
21 December. On the years when it doesn't coincide with the actual solstice we encourage people to enjoy a simple midwinter morning - it's just as magical," says Pippa.
Old Harry Rock
If the solstice is a chance to see sunrise in a new way, then it's also a chance to see an old friend in a new light... like Old Harry Rock at Studland.
"It's a bit like being at the end of the Earth looking directly at the sun as it rises out of the sea," says Emma Wright, the National Trust's Visitor Services and Enterprise Manager for Studland. "There's also the excitement of getting up in the dark and walking into the light.
"We have had every range of people you can imagine joining us for solstice, from overseas visitors to locals who make it a part of the festive period, young children starting their school holidays, and the very elderly who we transport up to Old Harry and who sometimes haven't been there for years."
If you do it year on year, don't expect the same view twice. The weather changes so no two years are ever the same. One thing that is consistent is people's love of the breakfasts. "Everyone sits at long tables to enjoy their food. It's very sociable and because of the time of year it is, people are naturally chatty so the atmosphere is always jolly," Emma adds.
Winter Solstice: Studland
Sunday 21 December, 7.15am-10am
Adults £8, Children 5
Start in the dark but end in the light as you take in the sunrise on the shortest day of the year at Studland. Watch day break over Old Harry Rocks before enjoying a warming breakfast at the Knoll Beach Cafe. Dress for an English winter and bring a torch.
Booking is essential on (01929 450259). www.nationaltrust.org.uk/studland
Winter Solstice: Corfe Castle
Sunday 21 December, 7.15am-9am
Experience sunrise from the castle ruins. A hot drink and breakfast bap awaits you in the village tea-room, which opens from 8am.
Booking is essential on (01929 481294). www.nationaltrust.org.uk/corfecastle